Búho: Brownsville’s Barrier-Breaking Bookstore

Written by Sammy Jo Cienfuegos

Edited by Abigail Vela

After twelve years of Brownsville, Texas, not having a traditional bookstore, Brownsville-native Gilbert Hernandez decided to open Búho, an indie bookstore located at 1140 E Washington St, offering both newly printed and secondhand books. 


Hernandez began his bookstore journey by hosting Búho’s inaugural pop-up event at the Amigoland Convention Center on March 14, 2022, and hosted several other pop-up events at local hotspots such as 7th and Park and Las Ramblas. After many late nights and meticulous probing, Hernandez found a home for Búho in the heart of downtown Brownsville in the historic Calderoni Building. Much like a passionate romance novel, Hernandez is creating a slow burn between Búho and Brownsville readers. 


He hosted a five-day test run in early January, giving us bibliophiles a taste of what Búho is really about, allowing us to take in the bookstore’s aromas and browse its metal shelves featuring about 40 genres. 


Although Hernandez plans to have a formal opening later this year, he couldn’t hold off any longer. When plotting this business venture, he asked himself, “Why hasn’t anyone done this yet?” and decided he “better be the one to do it.”

Búho’s owner and founder, Gilbert Hernandez pointing at the bookstore located in the historic Calderoni Building.

Brownsville’s Literacy and Poverty Rates

There are a few reasons, or rather excuses, as Hernandez points out, why big-name bookstores have not wanted to set up shop in Brownsville, including low literacy rates and Brownsville being a part of the poorest county. 

 

According to The Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation, 52% of adults living in Cameron County lack basic literacy skills. Additionally, only 68% of students graduated high school in 2021, compared to the state average of 84.8%. “Any way you look at it, it’s incomplete, dubious data. Instead of basing this on questionable averages, I would like to focus on individuals– individuals like these wonderful people that we see here who want to read, who are curious, who enjoy books,” shares Hernandez. 


Literacy rates and education levels are directly linked to a person’s socioeconomic status. The Brownsville Independent School District (BISD) has a child poverty rate of 48%, and the City of Brownsville has a poverty rate of 26.5%. In response to the above-average poverty rates, Hernandez is providing books at very reasonable prices. “Most of what you see here is ten dollars or less. Most average between five to seven dollars. You saw me sell a seven dollar book, but it retailed for seventeen,” states Hernandez.

Photo courtesy of Gilbert Hernandez.

Keeping low and affordable prices ensures that community members continue to come back for more. If not for the affordability, they’ll come back for the magic. Hernandez says, “most of these books are special. They’re out of print, especially the ones that we see here at the antique table.” He likes to include a note in the books detailing the year it was published and any significant details, truly honoring the book’s history and its heart. This small act is what sets Búho apart from big-name bookstores. Búho’s purpose isn’t solely to make a sale; Búho wants to share a world, an experience, an insight.

Búho: The Third Place

Aside from the fact that Hernandez is making history by opening up the city’s first independent bookstore and the fact that he is helping revitalize Historic Downtown Brownsville, Hernandez is focused on creating and cultivating community. He takes note of what genres people gravitate towards in the store and wants to cater to the needs and wants of his community.

 

“There is this concept… in the hospitality industry… called the third place… The first place is your home, the second place is your work, and then there’s a third place which is that in-between spot where… you can comfortably be yourself. I want Búho to be that third place for Brownsville readers,” details Hernandez. On top of that, he plans on offering community events inside of Búho, such as open-mic nights, poetry readings, history presentations, and maybe even some live acoustic music.

 

Hernandez has previously hosted chess tournaments at Búho and has donated some of his proceeds to Brownsville Animal Defense. While the bookstore is still finding its footing, Búho is doing a great job at quickly becoming a community fixture.

 

While Búho is still breaking dawn, Hernandez plans to open a cafe area to aid in his trek toward creating a community space. Offering drinks and perhaps a few pastries would bring more people in and ensure they stick around a little longer. Accompanying a nice cup of cafecito with a book definitely feels like an integral part of building a “third place.” Add in some chismeando and I’m sold!

 

Hernandez also plans on enhancing and beautifying the Calderoni Building by adorning the walls with local art and pictures of historic Brownsville. He also plans on including a section inside Búho highlighting local authors. But Hernandez’s first goal is replacing the metal storage racks currently living inside of Búho with nice wooden ones. Rome wasn’t built in one day, after all.

Reading Builds Community

Aside from creating a literal space for the community to thrive in, reading, in general, acts as a building block of community. Hernandez shares, “for the longest time, especially when we were growing up, reading was seen as something for ‘smart people.’ But now it seems that reading is more of an escape… and that’s why reading is getting more and more popular again… I really want [Búho] to be a space where can get together… and learn from each other’s differences and build upon each other’s common ground.” 

 

When we read, we absorb new information. When we read together, we learn not only from the text but from each other. Reading and community seem to go hand in hand, forming a symbiotic relationship. With more content to learn from, there is more to discuss and more to learn from each other, and so on and so forth. 

 

This is particularly why Hernandez is currently focusing on outreach efforts. He has spoken at St. Mary’s Catholic School and IDEA Sports Park and plans on coordinating with the Brownsville Independent School District (BISD) and local private charter schools to coordinate summer reading programs. Sharing books and the love of books with young children is exactly how the culture around reading will change and will help build a stronger community for the generations to come.

 

While different books may serve different purposes to varying audiences, Hernandez has a few must-read recommendations. “If I were to suggest a general topic for people to learn more about, it would be the history of Brownsville: [to learn about] both the positive and spicy sides to get a more complete picture,” says Hernandez. For specific books, he recommends his favorite books, which are The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and How to Win Friends and Influence People, written by Dale Carnegie. Hernandez shares that those two books are the reason why Búho is the way it is, filled with community and a lot of heart.

 

Búho has yet to host its grand opening but will announce that long-awaited date on their social media channels, which are @buhobtx on both Instagram and Twitter. In the meantime, Búho will continue to host test runs and other events for the community to get a taste of what is to come.

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